To discourage folks from signing up for coverage on the Obamacare exchanges, Republican lawmakers in several states have pushed through bills making it difficult for people to get free help from specially trained “navigators” authorized by the Affordable Care Act.
At the top of the list of special interest groups supporting such legislation: groups representing insurance agents and brokers, who, of course, charge for their services. They view the navigators as a threat to their income.
Nowhere have the agents and brokers found more friends than in the Missouri legislature, which last summer passed a bill making it unlawful for anyone other than a licensed agent or broker to give advice to any state resident about choosing a health plan.
As I wrote last June, Missouri lawmakers passed the bill even though it was in apparent violation of federal law, which states that individuals and organizations that complete a certain level of training can serve as navigators to help people choose plans that are best suited for them. Lobbyists for agents and brokers weren’t happy that the federal law doesn’t require navigators to be state-licensed, and they really weren’t happy with the part requiring that navigators’ services be free to consumers and small businesses. While navigators cannot actually sign someone up for coverage as agents and brokers can do, they can help folks complete eligibility and enrollment forms, and provide unbiased information about available options.
In a big win for consumers in Missouri and elsewhere, a federal court in Kansas City late last month blocked the GOP-sponsored law, ruling that it was indeed a violation of federal law.
“The Court is of the view that any attempt by Missouri to regulate the conduct of those working on behalf of the (federally operated health insurance exchange) is preempted,” wrote U.S. District Judge Ortie Smith.
Ironically, had state GOP lawmakers allowed Missouri to set up and run its own exchange, their anti-navigator law might have passed the court’s muster.
“The ACA provides states an opportunity to create exchanges,” Judge Smith wrote. “It also provides an avenue for states and HHS (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to jointly operate an exchange. Missouri has opted not to be in the health insurance exchange business. Having made the choice to leave the operation of the exchange to the federal government, Missouri cannot choose to impose additional requirements or limitations on the exchange.”
While the ruling was specific to Missouri, it is expected to have ramifications in states that passed similar laws. And don’t expect Missouri to challenge Judge Smith: both Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster are Democrats. The only comment Missouri Insurance Commissioner John M. Huff , a Nixon appointee, has made is that his department is reviewing the ruling.